Ask Rusty – Disability vs. Survivor Benefit
Dear Rusty: I have a question regarding Social Security. I’m 54 and applying for disability. I’ve had rheumatoid arthritis since I was 19. My son, 16 years old, receives survivor benefits from my deceased ex-husband. We were married for 20 years. I was told by Social Security that my monthly payments, if they found me eligible for disability, would be $1418 a month. When would I be eligible to collect my ex-husband’s Social Security benefit? He made considerably more income over the years and his benefit will be a good deal more than my projected $1418. Signed: Disabled Widow
Dear Disabled Widow: Your Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) benefit is based upon your own lifetime work record up to the point you became disabled. If awarded, the $1418 amount would be equal to the benefit you would have been entitled to on your own at your full retirement age (FRA) of 67. At your FRA, your SSDI benefit will automatically convert to your SS retirement benefit at the same amount. However, if your SSDI is awarded you will be also eligible to apply for your survivor benefit at any time.
Normally, age 60 is the earliest a survivor benefit can be claimed, but those who are disabled can apply for survivor benefits as early as age 50. Whether to apply for your survivor benefit from your ex-husband this early is a question you should carefully consider, because the amount of your survivor benefit will be reduced by 28.5% if you claim it now. And to be clear, if you have remarried and remain married you are not eligible for a survivor benefit from your deceased ex-husband (even though your minor son is).
Your survivor benefit from your ex-husband will not reach maximum until you have reached your full retirement age. At your FRA you would be entitled to 100% of the benefit your ex-husband was receiving (or entitled to receive) when he died but taken at any age earlier than your FRA your survivor benefit will be permanently reduced. The reduction is 4.75% for each full year earlier than your FRA that the survivor benefit is claimed to a maximum reduction of 28.5%.
So, if your SSDI is awarded you will have a choice - to take your smaller SSDI benefit and allow your survivor benefit to continue to grow, or to take your survivor benefit early and accept the permanent 28.5% reduction to that survivor benefit. You will need to compare those two benefit amounts to decide which course to take. For clarity, you can switch to your higher survivor benefit at any later time, but you shouldn’t wait beyond your FRA (when the survivor benefit reaches maximum) to claim it.